Fill So­cial Me­dia With Lies

In the com­ing in­for­ma­tion war, of­fence is the best form of de­fence

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - T K Arun

All po­lit­i­cal par­ties must take this as a pri­or­ity task: flood so­cial me­dia with fake, scur­rilous, ma­li­cious pro­pa­ganda against their ri­vals. In re­sponse, those at­tacked would ex­pose th­ese charges as scan­dalous mis­in­for­ma­tion. This process would ed­u­cate the pub­lic at large that so­cial me­dia mes­sages can­not be trusted with­out in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion. In the ab­sence of such ed­u­ca­tion, In­dian pol­i­tics is at grave risk— of a mas­sive mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign that would de­rail democ­racy at cru­cial times, such as just be­fore a gen­eral elec­tion.

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Tech­nol­ogy dis­rupts many things. It is com­mon­place that busi­nesses, jobs and skills would change with tech­nol­ogy. That tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions can em­power the sub­al­tern is some­thing that plum­bers look­ing for work, fish­er­men de­cid­ing which port to take their catch and boat to and farm­ers bar­gain­ing with bulk buy­ers about bench­mark­ing their price against the price at the near­est mar­ket have demon­strated, armed with their mo­bile phones.

Tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing how mem­bers of so­cial groups in­ter­act. This also peo­ple un­der­stand, in gen­eral. But when it comes to pol­i­tics, peo­ple be­have as if tech­nol­ogy does not mat­ter. At least, some peo­ple be­have like that, while oth­ers, can­nier, de­ploy tech­nol­ogy to reap rich div­i­dends in pol­i­tics.

When ra­dio first made its ap­pear­ance, politi­cians who made use of com­mer­cial ra­dio to com­mu­ni­cate their mes­sage had a big edge over those who did not. Ditto for TV. The In­ter­net’s ad­vent made the gap be­tween the tech-savvy cam­paigner and the lud­dite even wider. Mo­bile broad­band is now poised to make the big­gest change to the con­duct of pol­i­tics in the his­tory of the world.

In his book, War Room, on the 2014 cam­paign that made Nare­dra Modi prime min­is­ter, Ullekh de­tailed the use of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy adopted by the Modi cam­paign to or­gan­ise events, make de­cen­tralised, lo­cal choice of top­ics for the leader to ad­dress at in­di­vid­ual pit stops, iden­tify po­ten­tial vot­ers and mo­bilise them and to de­liver an ap­peal di­rectly to ev­ery tar­geted voter. This is now in the pub­lic do­main, and Prashant Kishor, who, along with Rajesh Jain and Arvind Gupta, or­ches­trated the in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy part of the cam­paign, is now spread­ing this ca­pa­bil­ity across the non-BJP po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

Mil­i­tary the­o­rists ex­cel at find­ing bet­ter ways to fight the last bat­tle. Real world gen­er­als who pul­ver­ize the en­emy al­ways know that the next war will be dif­fer­ent and wage their bat­tles dif­fer­ently. In pol­i­tics, the next bat­tle­front is so­cial me­dia.

Its ef­fect was ev­i­dent in the case of JNU and its stu­dent leader, Kan­haiya. Half of In­dia is con­vinced that Kan­haiya led the stu­dent com­mu­nity in shout­ing anti-na­tional slo­gans. Fake videos and fake com­men­tary spread in­tensely on so­cial me­dia played a huge role in this piece of suc­cess­ful pro­pa­ganda. It helped that main­stream me­dia, specif­i­cally, tele­vi­sion chan­nels that should have known bet­ter, aired doc­tored videos and cre­ated a chau­vin­is­tic dis­course based on mis­in­for­ma­tion.

A fore­taste of the mis­chief that so­cial me­dia is ca­pa­ble of was avail­able in the 2013 Muz­za­far­na­gar ri­ots. Pic­tures of dead bod­ies lined up in hor­ren­dously long and chillingly or­derly rows were cir­cu­lated on What­sapp to spread rage and ha­tred. That the pic­tures re­lated to a dif­fer­ent spa­tial and tem­po­ral zone did not de­tract from the im­pact th­ese images had.

Guard Against Mis­use

The pros­per­ous Jats of western Ut­tar Pradesh had ac­cess to phones that could sport What­sapp back in 2013. Since then, the pop­u­la­tion of smart­phones has grown by leaps and bounds. All fore­casts of the likely size of the smart­phone mar­ket in In­dia by 2019 project a huge rise in smart­phone us­age. All of them un­der­es­ti­mate the likely share of the smart­phone mar­ket.

Phone prices have been fall­ing sharply. And the trend is likely to con­tinue, just at the level of hard­ware man­u­fac­ture. The com­ing in­ten- se com­pe­ti­tion for 4G ser­vices that Jio is ex­pected to un­leash is likely to see hand­sets be­ing sub­sidised by tele­com op­er­a­tors, to boot. The .₹ 500 per month cost of mo­bile tele­phony that Re­liance in­tro­duced in 2003 was the turn­ing point in In­dia’s tele­com his­tory. Sim­i­lar strate­gies might be in­evitable, if Jio wants to draw in cus­tomers who al­ready are sub­scribers of other ser­vice providers.

In China, the share of smart­phones went up from 20% of all phones in use to 80% in just two years, said the head of Len­ovo while in In­dia. There is no rea­son to be­lieve that by 2019 that will not be the share of smart­phones in In­dia as well. Most vot­ers would have ac­cess to mo­bile broad­band and a va­ri­ety of so­cial me­dia apps, and would spend an ap­pre­cia­ble amount of time on th­ese.

Th­ese apps’ po­ten­tial for abuse is im­mense. How to pre­vent that is a chal­lenge for all.

Of­fence is the best form of de­fence, in this case. There is no point wait­ing for a wave of fake images and ma­li­cious mis­in­for­ma­tion to suf­fuse so­cial me­dia and then go­ing on a clar­i­fi­ca­tion spree. Strike first.

Bet­ter to have tweeted and lost than never to have tweeted at all

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